The church community here is intensely practical – with a huge streak of gleefulness running miles deep. It emerges as a steady stream of humour that, I’m beginning to realize, doesn’t quite manage to be as sophisticated as it pretends. It has a certain twinkle in the metaphorical eye that doesn’t quite show in the books. Like when Andy (who with his wife Ruth makes up the grandparents of the group) glares at me for saying toMAYto instead of toMAHto, or tells me the right way to pronounce ‘Tuesday.’ (Tyoooosday!)
Andy might also be the most charming elderly British man I’ve met yet–white hair, blue eyes always glimmering with humor behind sensible glasses (spectacles!), slender, and always wearing a pair of colorful socks. Usually polka dots are involved. His mild-mannered English-ness is neither James Herriot nor Sherlock Holmes but somewhere in between.
Everyone has welcomed me truly as a family member, and the more time I spend with this lovely group the more I realize that they don’t go out of their way to be so warm and loving. They’d do it for anybody. I’m beyond humbled by their acceptance. For all intents and purposes, when I arrived I was a total stranger. I’d talked to Anthony twice via Skype, but I hadn’t met anybody in person.
I know I’m trustworthy, but I didn’t expect them to operate on that right away. To be honest, I didn’t expect that much trust until at least a couple months in (and it wouldn’t be unfair, either) but within a week they were sharing prayer concerns with me that I would share only with my closest friends. They expect me to participate in their day-to-day lives and events, which, considering that’s what I came to do, shouldn’t be surprising–but that they trust me to do what I said I would is beyond gratifying. They trust me with their kids, and are happy to include me in their family time, which is quickly becoming a cherished part of my time here.
Though honestly, the whole church is one big family (and by big, I mean about it extends to about 20 people). Ruth and Andy are the grandparents, as I said already. Then there are Adam and Anne, Anthony (who is the pastor) and Emma and their four kids (I live with them) and some single people: me, Sarah, Kathryn, Laura (we’re all about the same age) and John, an older fellow.
Anthony and Emma operate like clockwork. I love watching how they do things–they complement each other beautifully. Anthony is the talkative one, setting people immediately at ease with a couple words here and there. I love watching new people walk into the ESOL classes he teaches, because by the time the class ends they are confident enough to talk to him with the five or six words of English they do know.
I love listening to Emma pray and talk to others, because the strength of her faith shines. When she prays, she talks to God, and when she talks to others, she extends God’s grace. She’s ceaselessly gentle. I’ve sat with her at the nights we volunteer at a homeless shelter–she once spent over two hours playing chess with a belligerent young guy who threw a fit every time anyone interfered in any way, well-meant or otherwise. After five minutes watching them play, I was ready to slap him–but Emma maintained her composure throughout.
Adam and Anne are the couple who picked me up from the airport, and they too are like Anthony and Emma in how they complement each other. Adam is loud, funny, and impossibly gentle–Anne is feisty and serene all at once. Adam goes out of his way to include everybody in the conversation, and when he laughs you hear it through the whole house–but Anne is somehow just as present as he is. (It’s a bit confidence-boosting, really. If Anne and Emma can play as important roles as they do and still be quiet types, then there’s hope for me 🙂
I don’t think Sarah realizes how much of a pillar she is in the church. Though she’s currently an engineer, she is making plans to go to Bosnia for a three-year missions trip next year. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so determined to live out her faith humbly in every aspect of her life. Prayer walks or meetings? She’s there. Courses on learning about other religions? Yep. Bible studies with me and Emma. Church, hangout, serving the homeless in three or four different places, reaching out to the many Muslim women in Derby through moms and tots groups and through just talking to the people that she meets–she’s always serving.
Only a week or two after I got here, she invited me with her to her friend’s house. This woman recently came as a refugee from Albania. She has two daughters, one of whom is autistic and the other is a toddler. We were going as support for her friend while a doctor and translator came to the house. The image of Sarah, sitting off to the side and listening intently to the conversation, is imprinted on my memory as the definition of what it means to be a good friend, taking notes to help her friend navigate through all the hoops of settling here. Sarah’s gone above and beyond her duty, even spending the night with her friend when she had to go out of town for an immigration interview. “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Her courage is an inspiration, and I know God will continue to use her to do great things for Him wherever she goes.
I’ve struck up a fabulous friendship with Kathryn. Though she doesn’t believe in God, she’s fallen in love with the church community too. A uni student, she and Laura are studying occupational therapy, which actually doesn’t have to do with our jobs, necessarily, but with how we occupy our time and what we make an occupation. Kathryn is pioneering some work in dark occupations – as in, helping people who make drugs or other physical abuse their occupation. She theorizes that people are turning to these dark occupations to satisfy good needs, like companionship, and is pursuing that train of thought as a means to help people overcome these problems. It makes sense then that not only does she work and volunteer constantly, but also is easy and pleasant to talk to.
I don’t know Laura very well yet, but I admire her rather a lot and am praying for her. She’s been struggling through some stuff, and going through a lot to get things in order again, spiritually, emotionally, and in terms of health as well.
And then there’s John. God is working on him. He’s the older fellow who’s been teaching me how to speak Derby English. He’s gone through some stuff recently too, but even in the two months I’ve been here God has visibly been changing him – I think he’s really close to becoming a believer. Listening to him pray the other day was truly an honor.
Coming to England has made me realize the incredible privilege of being part of God’s worldwide church. More than part of God’s church–part of His family, that He still talks to. Back at home in CA, and even at school in VA, we always tended toward the abstract and metaphysical. We forgot that God is also Friend, and not just Author, Creator, King, Savior, Lover, and all the other beautiful titles He has. Here, they talk to Him as well as worship Him. They’re always praying here, and it’s beyond reassuring to hear people bring their requests to God. More than anything else – more than singing, more than preaching, more than serving, we pray, and it’s literally just talking to God out loud, all of us together. It’s dizzyingly heart-filling to pray and know that the God of the Bible, who is on our side, is hearing every word with His full attention on us. He wants to hear what we have to say, so we tell Him about the friends we are making in the community. We tell Him all about their struggles – to learn English, to get permission to stay as asylum seekers or refugees or whatever, to find good schools for their autistic children, to overcome drug and alcohol addictions, to find homes and jobs. We ask Him to teach us how to love like He does. And He hears, and does it.
The people here at Urban Life overwhelm me when they pray for love, because they live it out in their actions toward me and they don’t even realize it. Things like that prove God over and again to me, because it shows that He is working in us to make us more like Him – and it’s right that we never be satisfied, until we are perfected in Heaven.
God listens intently when we pray. He will respond — in His own terms and in His own time and in His own perfect way. Not, perhaps, in the way we think is best – but there’s no way He lets our prayers go unanswered, no matter how long it takes. Knowing that makes the potential, the dignity, in every human being, no matter how troubled or dirty or illiterate – shine. Truly we have nothing to fear; our God has redeemed the worst of us and never stops perfecting us. The work is already done on the Cross.
The more I’m here, the more I know that fear is unjustified. Even if things are scary, or you don’t have all the pieces of the picture, you can really know that He is who He says He is. He is God, and for all that He is Savior and Creator and King, He is also as close to you as the other side of the couch, so to speak. And He’s moving us toward good ends.